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Theatre Literary Arts

Age cannot wither them

Helen, Cleopatra, Antigone. Clara Chow ponders their resonance in our #metoo era.


Published: 6 Mar 2019

Time taken : ~10mins

Reflections on women in tragedy.

Helen, Cleopatra, Antigone—Clara Chow ponders these iconic figures and their resonance in our #metoo era

A hero wants something and goes on a quest—either physical, spiritual or both. Along the way, he either acquires what he needs (magical weapons, powerful allies or deep reserves of wealth and wisdom) and succeeds, or falls short of greatness and fails.

At least that's the mythical archetype of stories. Classical tales often focus on the male action hero, reducing women to supporting roles. Think of Lady Macbeth as the engine of her husband's ambition, yet unable to seize the power she craves on her own. Modern scholars have pointed out the possibility that her advocation of violence and suicide stem from post-partum depression and the loss of a child—she declares, "I have given suck" when the couple appear devoid of heir. Perhaps, therein lies the real tragedy: the lack of female agency and redemption in many of the narratives passed down from antiquity.

Since the turn of the century, though, writers have tried to redress this imbalance. Take the Greek myth of Odysseus. A couple of female-centric examples spring to mind: Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (2005), which tells of what happened in Ithaca while Odysseus went off to war for 20 years, from his wife Penelope's perspective; Madeline Miller's Circe (2018), a version of events according to the sorceress abandoned by Odysseus on his journey home.

In 2018, actress Margot Robbie announced she was creating a television series with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in which Shakespeare's stories are told from the female point of view, by an all-female creative team.

Tragedies, in particular, by dint of being unhinged on misalignments of time and stars, have a way of reducing female characters to passive and (not-so) innocent bystanders. Short of a complete overhaul of some familiar tragedies, perhaps it is time we consider the implications of the way female roles have been written. And what they can still tell us about the world we live in.

Illustration of Helen.

Helen of Troy: It’s complicated

I have strange feelings about Helen of Troy.

Let's recap

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium," wrote Christopher Marlowe in Dr Faustus, inventing the handle prefacing almost every mention of the most beautiful woman in the Greek mythical world.

Born beautiful: a "get out of jail free" card?

To most people's minds, it would seem no particular hardship to be Helen, so easily and blithely does she change men and loyalties, so Teflon-like her reputation. All is forgiven, apparently, if you are attractive: that message seemed implicit in the English textbook version of the story I read as an awkward convent schoolgirl.

She is not conventionally painted as a tragic figure, managing to avoid being pinned down to this or that category. Some say she was seduced by Paris, others say she was raped and kidnapped; forcibly carried off. Some say she had a change of heart and wanted to reunite with her husband, rejoicing while Troy burnt. The medieval Christians worshipped her akin to the Virgin Mary. Reinvention is her prerogative, because beauty has its privileges.

Later, having seen a succession of comely Caucasian actresses play Helen on television and in film, my sneaky suspicion that pretty girls get away with murder will solidify into a working hypothesis, confirmed bit by bit by the world—like that time I went as a teenager to a job interview for a car salesperson and the boss came out to the reception where all three of us candidates—all young women—were waiting and pointed with a folder at the slimmest and most dolled-up of us, and said: "I'll go with her." All of which is to say that I experience complicated emotions, shading from envy to anger to schadenfreude, when I see Diane Kruger in 2004's Hollywood blockbuster Troy, swanning around in smug blonde glory.

In my rewrite of Helen

Helen lives with her boyfriend Ulysses in a trailer park in the afterlife and takes in a newly-arrived Steve Jobs. She is feisty, clever, kind and wholesome in an apple-pie-on-the-window-sill kind of way. She defies expectations, but is also plagued literally by the ghosts of the Trojan warriors.

Writing this story is my way of sorting out all the unrealistic idealisation we have heaped upon her, and the contradictory facets of her legend. I turn her into a tragic figure, stoically bearing a terrible, warped and perpetual punishment, silent so as to protect the man who loves her. I think of her as a symbol for the way, from antiquity, men actively start wars and women—mothers, sisters, wives and daughters—passively pay the price and bear the losses. Of her as the scapegoat for a conflict that perhaps had its roots in myriad twisted socio-political reasons, but became subsumed into a palatable and—yes, dare we say it—beautiful narrative.

But each time I read the story Steve and Ulysses aloud, at literary festivals, I am confronted again by my choice of making Helen a tragic figure for our #metoo times, and visiting violence upon her person. Am I the awkward ugly teenager wanting to exact revenge upon her? Am I the toxic girlfriend wanting to tear down a successful female peer? How empowering or empowered is it for me to make her suffer in print? Or is it, as I justify to myself, merely a sign of the patriarchal times and how they haven't changed? Should I write a gender-imbalanced scenario in a fantasy story to reflect the sexist reality many women still face? Or are we better off by imagining alternatives on the road to true change?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I suspect I never will. Like I said: I have complicated feelings about Helen. And I'm glad I do.

Illustration of Cleopatra.

Cleopatra: blame it on the woman

The idea of beauty is there in Shakespeare's Cleopatra, whose charms and love undo Antony. Women in power rarely get flattering portrayals in mass media. Think: Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton—as well as the incessant scrutiny of wardrobe, hairstyles and make-up over their policies whenever a new female politician takes to the world stage.

The Yoko Ono of Roman history?

The co-titular heroine of Antony & Cleopatra is still relevant today as a lesson in playing up one's imperial image; or in handling Antra/Cleotony's public relations via minor characters' TMZ-like reportage. The legendary queen's allure and mystique earned her admirers and enemies alike, but also, to some extent, held the latter at bay. It is also symptomatic of what I call the "Yoko Ono syndrome"—in which the fall or perceived decline of a great man is conveniently blamed upon the controversial woman he loves. The Bible is rife with such pairings: Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Jezebel and Ahab. The Windsors have their Wallace Simpson.

Was she or was she not?

I remember being taught the play as an undergraduate by a formidable Shakespeare specialist, who teased out its misogynistic implications for us: The way in which Cleopatra's identity is defined by her man ("since my lord is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra"), and the way he curses her instead of taking full responsibility for his own battles ("This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me"). Having gone into battle together, he turns tail and flees when she loses her nerve, but it is her that the peanut gallery reviles.

Sitting in that long-ago tutorial room, listening to the tutor talk passionately about the interplay between mythic imagination and clunky theatrical reality, I had realised that two different texts existed simultaneously for the female reader: the one that you loved, for Shakespeare's intricacy of language; and the other that disavowed you as a rational and consistent person for your gender, which you tried hard not to disavow in return.

Cleo the chameleon

My favourite line in the play must be: "Here I am Antony,/Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave." It is a line spoken by Antony, but I give it—as per the prerogative of the revisionist/feminist reader—to Cleopatra instead. "Here I am, Antony, yet cannot hold this visible shape." Throughout the play, she is playful, capricious and unpredictable. She is less a well-rounded person than an idea of what a woman is like. This is due to a lack of agency in the way she has been created—she does whatever her male playwright bids her to, rather than what rings true of a human being with a set of values.

But Cleopatra's changeability is also a strength. She cannot be pinned down by audiences. "Age cannot wither her," as Enobarbus endorses. "Nor custom stale/Her infinite variety." The National Theatre's recent production (Sept 2018–Jan 2019) of Antony & Cleopatra, starring Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes, redresses the Elizabeth Taylor-isation of the Egyptian queen as a young, pale-skinned Anglicised beauty. Okonedo—whose father is British-Nigerian and mother, Jewish—played the role with a maturity spiked with girlish giddiness—another refreshing spin of the role that Shakespeare had penned for a self-referential boy-actor from a troupe of male players. The casting is a sign of the diverse and globalised times.

Perhaps, the relevance and significance of Cleopatra—like that of all heads of states—is symbolic, rather than gendered and realistic. She is public opinion personified. The winds of political change incarnate. As long as we don't mistake her for a real woman to emulate, we'll be fine.

Illustration of Antigone.

Anti-absolutes: the world of Antigone

Men make choices in war, while women grapple privately with domestic dilemmas, in Sophocles' Antigone, too. But the play's enduring quality stems from its age-old conflict between a citizen's conformity to social or national laws, and one's innate obligations to the natural or 'divine' laws of right and wrong.

Let's recap

A girl's brothers go to war against each other and die. One is honoured as a hero. The other branded a traitor and left to rot out in the wilderness. The new person in charge decrees that anyone who buries the traitor would be stoned to death. What would you do?

Antigone chooses her love and duty as a sister (her name means "worthy of, or in the place of one's parents”—as substitute for her mother Jocasta and father Oedipus) and gives her brother Polynices' corpse proper funeral rites. She defies her uncle, the new king Creon. For her trouble, she is sentenced to be entombed alive. She hangs herself. Creon's son, Haemon, who loves her, kills himself with a knife. His mother Eurydice, too, commits suicide.

What was Sophocles trying to say

Man-made law, if followed to the letter, leads to despair—that seems to be the takeaway. But Sophocles' message is rarely straightforward: pig-headed adherence to binary thinking, such as Antigone's self-righteous admonishing of her obedient younger sister Ismene who fears breaking the king's law, seldom makes for happy endings either.

Written in a time of nationalistic fervor and first performed around 441 BC, Antigone spoke to Athenians' pride in their democratic tradition and wariness of tyranny. Over time, the play has remained popular precisely because of its relevance to the tugging demands of the need to police national groups and borders, as well as the impulse for compassion; the exigency of control and order, versus respecting individual freedom and civil liberties.

(I write this while listening to a Spotify playlist comprising of songs titled Antigone, by the likes of contemporary classical composers, a Greek goth vocalist, a London electronica band, a French-Japanese rap collaboration, and a death-metal band.)

When I first came across Antigone, my first instinct had been to click my tongue at the two inconsiderate brothers who fought each other in the first place. A lot of heartache could have been averted if those two dunderheads had shared the throne as originally agreed, instead of coming to blows. Over time, however, I have realised that the play's premise is a lot more complicated and versatile than just a patriarchal dispute.

The new Antigone, reimagined by women

Pakistani-British author Kamila Shamsie's 2017 novel, Home Fire, powerfully repurposed the Antigone myth as an allegory for the rising xenophobia and anti-Islamic paranoia in the Western world. Set in modern Britain, it follows two sisters as they deal differently with the fallout from their brother's decision to join ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). When the younger sister, Aneeka, seduces the Home Secretary's son to try and secure the return of her brother, the politician intensifies his hardline campaign against British-Muslim "terrorists".

Home Fire is but one of many contemporary re-interpretations of the Greek classic that presents an alternative to the incessant conservative Euro-American news cycle and Trump-esque narrative of racial profiling, travel bans and hysterical enemy-of-the-state charges. In 2014, Syrian refugee women staged their own version of Antigone in Beirut, weaving their own stories of war and suffering into the ancient story. In March 2019, Esplanade and Singapore theatre company Cake staged Rubber Girl on the loose which reimagined a multi/inter-cultural Antigone in a hallucinatory institution ruled by three Creons. These versions are antidotes, in a world hung up on absolutes and hawkish rhetoric. They are necessary, important, salves.

When I think of Antigone now, I am in awe of and emboldened by her defiance. Perhaps, it is only a woman—with none of the privilege and power of the male-dominated establishment, and everything to lose—who can produce such a complete, urgent and heart-rending response to the prohibitive state. She disregards its dictates as only a pain-ridden animal can.

In Anne Carson's translation of Antigone, staged at the Barbican in 2015, King Creon pronounces: "I’ll have you hanging by your thumbs till you confess/ you greedy pissant little amateur terrorist." This bluster is cleared away like cobwebs when his niece Antigone (played in London by Juliette Binoche) later tells him that he has ensured the people's compliance because "you've nailed their tongues to the floor". She is the lone voice of dissent, in a society brow-beaten and bowed as much by the promise of stability as by violence.

Theatre is filled with female figures wronged by the whims of rulers—just think of King Lear's Cordelia, undone by her honesty and principles in the face of a father's test of eloquence. But it is Antigone who burns a bright flame in the collective retina, before winking out and leaving an unforgettable after-image.


Writer Clara Chow is reading together with poet Yeow Kai Chai in Two to the Dark Tower Come, on 29 Mar 2023 at the Esplanade Concourse.

Contributed by:

Clara Chow

Clara Chow is the author of Modern Myths, a collection of short fiction inspired by characters from Greek mythology. Her story Steve and Ulysses, featuring Helen of Troy, appears in that collection.

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